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Words by Tyler Palma and quotes from Kengo Kuma reprinted with permission
Kengo Kuma has been in the news most recently as the designer of the new Japan National Stadium, the planned site for the Tokyo Olympics. But his prominence as one of the most significant and influential contemporary Japanese architects goes back decades. His stated goal is to recover the tradition of Japanese buildings and to reinterpret these traditions for the 21st century. He is professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Tokyo.
“When you observe architects from far away, they appear to be like gods who create the world, and you are so much in awe of them that it seems impossible to imagine that you could become something so great. However, when you become close with architects, you realize that they are surprisingly ordinary people, and you begin to feel like you can create architecture.” – Kengo Kuma*
In a time of climate change, pandemic, and protests for racial equality, architecture has a responsibility to answer questions about the role it plays in creating a society that is sustainable, safe, and inclusive. At its best, architecture is inspiring and brings out the best in us. At its worst, architecture is oppressive, wasteful, and ugly. In Japan, as anywhere, there are buildings that fall into both categories, a never-ending tug of war between metropolis sprawl and sensational structures. At the forefront of the discourse about what architecture in Japan can and should be is Kengo Kuma. And because of his stature and stardom, where he goes others will follow.
If you have never heard of Kengo Kuma and his architecture firm KKAA, then you are in the very enviable position of being on the precipice of discovering something very special. Dotted throughout Japan and now the world are dazzling buildings that communicate the beauty and depth of traditional Japanese craftsmanship on a liveable scale. Although Kuma’s buildings are undeniably contemporary, their beauty is rooted in a long-standing tradition of building from wood and know-how that stretches back to ancient times.
Japan is rightfully known for finding harmony in the fusion of tradition and technology. The juxtaposition of these two seemingly contradictory forces has been the subject of endless travel essays and is now a well-deserved stereotype that creeps into virtually any cultural examination of the country. But rather than simply contrast one with the other, Kuma has found a way to combine contemporary technology to bring out the very best of traditional materials and take old techniques to new heights.
This was not always the case; Kuma came to prominence during Japan’s bubble period and was thus well-acquainted with steel and concrete before re-discovering the beauty and warmth of lumber. On a trip to the countryside, Kuma saw the thatched roofs, wooden buildings and tatami mats from his childhood and was inspired to return to an architecture that used local materials and local methods. Kuma later recalled that it was from “the small architecture that I create in collaboration with local craftsman” that he earned the nickname “barefoot architect”; a moniker that echoed the “title given to doctors who travelled around the country to provide grassroots medical services during the age of Mao Zedong”.
This pivot from Kuma towards a more sustainable architecture that invigorated local economies was accompanied by an understanding that buildings needed to be for the communities in which they are built. Places that locals can take pride and ownership in. Although many of Kuma’s works can be found in prosperous cities such as Tokyo, London and Paris and many of his buildings are luxurious and unquestionably expensive, Kuma also recognises that “economic development and regional revitalization through architecture will be an important mission for architects in the future”**.
This underlying belief always felt important but as societies across the globe grapple with whether our systems promote or hinder equality and as some are under lockdown in spaces that are neither clean nor conducive to one’s wellbeing, the urgency for thoughtful architecture is more pressing than ever. We must recognise that the creations of Kengo Kuma (and many of his contemporaries) are not only nice to look at but a vital step in improving our cities.
As Kuma states, “I have talked about the need for open architecture for a long time… The word environment was used to explain this, but I now feel that the word health is more appropriate. (During self-isolation) I have been taught about the happiness of walking and having the wind in my face, basking in the sun and feeling the earth in this manner.” This was Kuma’s revelation when Covid-19 brought a stop to his endless travel and forced him to experience stasis in a way that had become utterly foreign to him as his project list became ever-more international in its scope. “I am staying still in one place for what really seems to be the first time in my life. But that does not mean that I am just sitting at my desk. I am continuing to walk. I have realized that the act of walking creates a rhythm for my body and stimulates me, expanding the horizons of my thoughts. On the other hand, I am still connected with the world by means of frequent video conferences. I have talked extensively over the last few years about the importance of compact cities and walkable cities, but I did not think that I would have the opportunity to experience for myself this new way of living by using my body in this manner.”
Not everything in the news these days gives cause for optimism, but there is something about a Kengo Kuma structure that gives me hope for the future and makes me believe that our cities, houses, stadiums and shops can be places of connectivity and sustainability. 2020 was due to be a banner year for Japan and the pinnacle of this was to be the Olympics and Paralympics, due to be showcased in a stunning new wooden stadium that Kuma designed. Both events have now been delayed to an uncertain future in 2021 but Kuma is finding silver linings to this changed date, “I feel that the postponement of the Olympics for one year is sending a message that people should wake up to and perceive the ‘happiness of openness’. Once people wake up to this fact, it will be time to gather and celebrate. I think that this period of one year should be used to learn about this new type of happiness.”
For me, this happiness is embodied by turning a corner to see the crisscrossed beams of Sunny Hills (pictured above), enjoying a coffee overlooking the Meguro River at the Roastery, or meandering towards the Nezu Museum down the bamboo-lined entranceway (pictured below).
Japan has an impressive list of Pritzker award-winning architects, and an equally inspiring number of younger professionals who look well-poised to carry on the torch of pioneering architecture to future generations. But Kuma is the “starchitect” of the moment and his global oeuvre is reshaping Japan’s architectural face to the world. If you are lucky enough to have a KKAA work near you, we would love you to share photos, videos, or stories of it with us here or by tagging social media posts with #InsideJapanTours. And if you have plans to visit Japan in the future, get in touch with us to hear about some of our favourite Kuma structures around the country.
*Quotes in this piece are from Kengo Kuma’s newsletter and have been published with direct consent from the KKAA Press Coordinator
**Quoted from University of Tokyo course “Four Facets of Contemporary Japanese Architecture: Theory”